Updated: Apr 15, 2021
It took me two years to get my CPA while working. Looking back, you definitely need to be in the hustle mode in order to be working a full time job and be studying towards your CPA. Digging into my memories from 6 or 7 years ago, I have compiled some tips that I've learned over time as well as tips I wish I told myself back then!
Tip #1: Managing work and studying
Just to give you a bit of background, here in Canada, you need to go through 6 modules before you are eligible to write the full 3 day Common Final Exam (CFE), aka the CPA exam. For the first four modules, there are two mandatory modules you have to take based on financial and management accounting, while the other two are electives you can choose (ie. Tax, Audit, Finance, etc.). These four modules each have a 3 hour exam at the end of a two month program. The last two modules are based on team work, where you have the opportunity to build on more "soft skills" like leadership skills, etc.
Usually, you finish the six modules over the course of a year and a half, in which you are now ready to write the CFE. This may all sounds very confusing at first glance, but if you are attending a public practice firm, there will be a set program in place and you are provided with ample guidance on how to make it through.
That being said, you do work a full work schedule, you are expected to get the studying done in your own spare time - usually after work or over the weekend. The good news is that there is synergy of studying and applying what you learned in the real world at work, which can help you reinforce whatever you learned and can be exciting when you finally "get it."
I'm not going to tell you it's easy, but it is definitely manageable (with the following tips listed below!) and it's a testament to yourself that you were able to accomplish something that was difficult.
Tip #2: Time management
It goes without saying, that if you are juggling two big priorities such as work and studying, that time management is going to be crucial. My tip is to sit down with yourself with your calendar in hand, and get an idea of how your next few months and even your year is going to look like.
Once your get your module course syllabus, you can put down the important dates, such as when assignments are due and when the exam is. Once you get an idea of how your next few months are going to look like - work backwards. Create a schedule on a weekly basis what you need to study in order to get that particular assignment done on time where it's manageable and you're not burning yourself out.
For example, if an assignment is due in two weeks, you can dedicate 3 times a week where on Tuesday you are researching, Thursday you are writing a draft, and Saturday you're write the meat of the assignment. The following week, you dedicate Tuesday to cleaning up the assignment and Thursday on proofreading. This is a more doable schedule than telling yourself that you will dedicate 10 hours on the day before the assignment is due to get started and to complete it.
With that being said, I always thought it's easier to chip away on something a little bit each day (ie. create a habit!) rather than trying to get everything done in a few days. Being consistent and making a daily study goal puts less pressure on yourself and you tend to get less stressed as that deadline for that assignment or exam is approaching.
Tip #3 - Motivation
There are going to be times where your motivation falters and you are sick and tired of juggling so many things. However, remember that it was your decision to put yourself in this situation! You had decided to make an investment in yourself and achieving a CPA is a prestigious designation, which means that it's not suppose to be easy - or else everyone would be able to do it!
If your career and your future is not enough of a motivation to get yourself through the next two years studying for the CPA while working, I'm not sure what else I can tell you. Maybe ask yourself if this is something you really want or if this is the right path for you.
Tip #4 - Studying
The modules you have completed beforehand are designed to help you prepare for the actual CFE. That being said, there are probably some concepts you need a refresher on after a few months. It's important for you to first review the knowledge you are required to know on the exam - that should be your starting point.
After your initial review, it's time to jump into the practice exams. I cannot stress this enough, but practice exams are everything. What is a better way to prepare for the CFE than actually writing the past exams? Another important thing to note is to take these practice tests seriously and to complete them in the allotted time while trying to emulate the actual test setting. By disciplining yourself to complete the practice exam in the 4 or 5 hours allotted time, with the same breaks, and in a quiet room, you are training yourself to withstand the testing environment.
Probably the most important step of the studying process is DEBRIEFING. There is no point in writing a 4 or 5 hour practice exam if you don't go back and check how you did. I'm not going to lie, your first few practice exam results are going to be disheartening. I remember doing so badly that I worried if I can even pass the exams. Don't beat yourself over it (unless you're a Supers Star who can get good results from the very beginning!) - just be assured that you will improve and it's part of the process. Spend time on the answers you get wrong rather than the answers you get right - this is a better use of your time!
I was fortunate enough to be given around 2 months off from work right before the CFE. I had a study buddy who I had spent 5 days out of a week writing practice exams and debriefing with. I found being consistent was important and treated studying like a full-time job. From Monday to Friday, I would get up early and go to the library by 9am. The first thing I would do is write the 4/5 hour practice exam, then take a lunch break and debrief for the rest of the day. Sometimes when I felt I was falling behind, I spent a weekend just catching up - though I advise against doing this too often to avoid burnout (refer to my final point below).
Tip #5 - Mental Health
Your mental health and well-being is often overlooked - I certainty did. When I was in my early twenties, I thought I was a machine who can just take everything on. It might work for a few weeks, even a few months, but after a while, you will definitely feel the effects of burnout. When this stage hits, you no longer have the energy or the willpower to continue, and you will certainly feel unhappy and more stressed when you can no longer make the progress you once made.
Remember - life is a marathon, not a sprint! Set a schedule that is realistic and reasonable. Also, carve out time to take care of your yourself - whether that is taking walks, meditating, cooking wholesome meals, working out, reading your favourite book, working on your hobbies, and/or spending time with family. Writing the CFE is a mental game - aside from just studying, it is equally important to be maintaining your condition so you are prepared to write a 3 day back to back exam. Maintaining a healthy balance of work, study, and your personal life is what will help you get to the finish line of passing that CPA exam.